Happy Memorial Day. Happy? Really?
Every year, on the last Monday in May, this prosaic American phrase causes me to physically recoil whenever I see or hear it. Happy Memorial Day. With those casual words, tossed over shoulders on our way to beaches, barbecues, & furniture sales, we demonstrate as a nation a deep ignorance of the history of this day and an almost total disconnect from the suffering and death that unending warfare brings our own citizens & their families.
Memorial Day officially began as Decoration Day. Decoration Day officially began with Major General John Logan, head of a Civil War Union veterans organization. In 1868, he issued a general order that declared May 30th a day for decorating “the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church yard in the land.” Over a century later, Congress fixed Memorial Day as a federal holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May. But the genesis of these death rituals, Memorial Day’s true origin, lacks a clear name, date, & location just as much as it lacks honorable culture-wide observance.
As is the way with this sort of magic, multiple threads emerged in multiple places to weave together the birth of the holiday weekend we now so carelessly take advantage of every year.
October 1864, Boalsburg, PA — Records reveal women in the community begin a yearly ritual of tending & decorating the local graves of Civil War soldiers.
May 1865, Charleston, SC — Black women & men who were former slaves in South Carolina, gather at a racetrack-turned-prison-camp to re-inter over 200 Union soldiers originally buried in a mass grave. A solemn parade, prayers, & grave decorations are offered in remembrance of the war dead.
January 1866, Columbus, GA — The Ladies Memorial Association passes a motion to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers every spring. Mary Ann Williams, the organization’s Secretary, sends a letter to newspapers all over the country, asking that women across the nation do the same.
April 1866, Columbus, MS — Women already decorating the graves of Confederate dead from the battle of Shiloh decide to begin tending to Union soldiers’ graves, as well.
June 1866, Vicksburg, MS — An editorial in the Vicksburg Herald reads “while engaged in decorating and preserving the graves of our soldiers, they thought not of war-like strife, nor of vengeance against the dead. They only knew, as they viewed those solitary graves of strangers in a strange land, that they were sleeping far away from home, far from mothers and sisters, and as they dropped the Spring roses of our own sunny clime upon their silent resting places, it was with the Christian hope that some fair sister in the North in a like charitable spirit, might not overlook the silent graves of our Southern sons, which are scattered among them.”
It is likely that the actions of these now mostly nameless women were Major General Logan’s inspiration for creating the first federal observance of Decoration Day. After WWI, Decoration/Memorial Day became the day to remember all of America’s war dead, not just those from the Civil War.
In researching this piece, I read an online pop culture sort of article written in the last year or two that included a few simplified bullet points of some of this Memorial Day history followed by the exhortation to “at least take a moment” between picnics, barbecues, & beach volleyball matches to remember the original purpose of the holiday. A moment. Only a moment? Can the enormity of war’s death & destruction truly be squeezed into just a moment? Just a quick breath between the vast litany of sales & social events?
I have to wonder– if the cost of war was more present in our observances of this day, would we perhaps be less cavalier about killing our own & other people’s children than we are right now? We’re certainly happy to wave our flags & recite our rhetoric, but that’s so much easier to do when we’re privileged enough to easily put the seemingly never-ending cycles of war out of sight, out of mind on the whole whenever we please. I feel we need to confront this as a culture. We need to face up to this & to sit with the discomfort that comes as we look directly into the truth of warfare. And to fully experience all the emotions that come with confronting those truths. I believe that would have the power to shift even some of the most hawkish among us.
I’ve become increasingly less forgiving of the American habit of letting all the start-of-summer rituals take over Memorial Day weekend (along with the huge doses of despicable marketing gimmicks) largely in part because of my experiences with ANZAC Day in Australia. There, I witnessed how truly an entire nation pauses to remember– & not in a rah-rah look how patriotic we all are way, but in a somber, honest, humble, grieving manner that looks towards peaceweaving as the only acceptable way to truly honor the war dead.
If we could somehow figured out how to stem the relentlessly rising tide of rampant commercialization and if the majority of every community in America, large & small, participated in something like the ANZAC Dawn Service as a culture-wide ritual, I might not care quite so much what people did with the rest of the weekend. Until then, however, I regard Memorial Day sales promotions as offensive, and ignorance or disregard of the history & purpose of the day as a symptom of deep cultural dysfunction.
Those who survive our dead soldiers and the dead, themselves, deserve much more that “at least a moment” on one early summer’s day. And lest we forget, a summer’s day that is by no means, a happy one.
Kate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is a brand-new resident of Colorado & a homeschooling mother to her three children. She holds a BA from Tulane University, where she studied Economics, International Relations, & Religious Traditions. Kate is a presenter for Red Tents & women’s retreats. She also hosts seasonal women’s gatherings, facilitates labyrinth rituals, and leads workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. During 2016, she will be presenting at the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology Conference in Boston, MA, at the SOA’s first open online conference, AvaCon 2016, & at the inaugural Ninefold Festival in Orange, CT.
11 thoughts on “Stop Using the H-Word to Greet This Day by Kate Brunner”
Thank you, Kate, for this important, passionate post. I just looked up when Memorial Day became part of a three-day weekend. 1968. When I was a child in the 1950s and early 1960s, Memorial Day was always May 31st regardless of which day of the week the 31st fell. The whole village turned out for a solemn parade that included veterans of World Wars I and II. The parade concluded at the village park where prayers and addresses were offered. My father was the Episcopal priest, a volunteer fireman, and a World War Two veteran as were most of the fathers of my friends. The memory of war was very present.
As you note, we have not experienced war on our own soil since the American Civil War. During the 1970s the draft ended with Vietnam being the last war waged with compulsory military service. Nixon wanted to end the draft as a way to undermine protest against the war. Now not every family or community has a son or daughter at risk. Our all-volunteer army comes disproportionately from poorer communities where economic opportunities are scarce. Army recruiters target those communities.
My husband served in the army just before the escalation of the Vietnam War. He knows how lucky he is to have escaped that horror. He remembers that basic training was the first time he knew people outside of his own class, what we sometimes call a bubble.
We need our bubbles to burst. We need to let in the suffering of wars all over the globe, many of which we created and/or escalated. We need to elect leaders who will enact compassionate policies towards refugees from war. We also need to acknowledge that the wealth of our nation was founded on genocide and slavery. I don’t think we’ve ever collectively atoned.
Much to remember. Much work to do. Thanks again for this post.
Thank you Elizabeth and Kate. I also remember when Memorial Day was always the 31st, and much less commercialized. We’ve turned attention away from war and it’s obscenity and focused on making ourselves more comfortable.
In Canada we remember casualties of war on November 11th, but poppies appear on lapels through the whole month. I like the set date…the end of WW1.
I think it’s time we evolved past violent ways of solving differences. But here we are…
Brava! It was still called Decoration Day when I was a post-War (that’s WWII) child in Ferguson. But there were already barbecues and other “celebrations.” Elizabeth is right, as you are right, when you both say that war is nothing to celebrate and commercialize. But………..in the Sixties, any excuse for a party. Right?
Thanks, Kate, for this post. The history of Southern women decorating the graves of Yankee soldiers is moving. And the post in general has me thinking. My response to Memorial Day for many years has been a silent protest against war (just so you know, my protests against war have not always been silent. I was the co-director of the Wisconsin Nuclear Weapons Freeze campaign for several years and an anti-war activist before and after that). In my youth Memorial Day was a patriotic celebration of war. I experienced the tributes to the fallen soldiers and the playing of taps as the window dressing that was needed to salve the wounds that went along with the parades that celebrated the victory in World War II.
I think that as a nation we have become more jaded about war. That’s not to say that we’ve really looked at it and realized that it has to stop. In fact, after 9/11 I was at a party in a small town outside of Madison where I heard people say we should “nuke ’em all.” But many more of us are ambivalent or negative about war than in my parent’s (WWII) generation. The Viet Nam War changed many hearts.
Yes, I remember Decoration Day. And I honor my father who served in WWII. But it seems today that we’ve mixed together honoring those who have died and supporting our troops and unconditionally supporting our unending wars. Thankfully, we’ve moved past demonizing troops as we did during the Viet Nam war. But I fear we’ve lost our capacity or will to oppose the war machine.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, smstrouse, with the following statement: “But it seems today that we’ve mixed together honoring those who have died and supporting our troops and unconditionally supporting our unending wars.” We internalize the message of so much mythology where the tough “hero” gets glorified for destroying the perceived enemy. “Where have all the flowers gone?” (Peter, Paul, and Mary).
Yesterday my local newspaper had a political cartoon that expressed that message perfectly. Most of the frame was taken up by a huge American flag that draped and wrapped up a tombstone on which was written: “Our heroic dead.” “When will we ever learn?”
Thank you, Kate, for your much-needed reminder. And thank you to smstrouse and Esther for your comments — I become so upset on this topic that I greatly appreciate your ability to articulate what I feel. So much of our history is taught based upon using the “war timeline” where we focus on what we gained rather than all that was lost. :(
Thank you so much for this post, Kate. I was at a Memorial Day ceremonial retreat this whole weekend with veterans and allies, and this very thing (“Happy Memorial Day,” in particular )was discussed. It’s incredibly heartening to know others are thinking about these issues as well.
This is a wonderful post, thank you so much for researching and writing. I love how you postulate that this holiday was started by WOMEN.
I wish American women could decorate the graves of all soldiers in current conflict zones, but seeing as how our battlefields are overseas, it is much harder to acknowledge “the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church yard in the land.” Hard to acknowledge, easy to push into the back of our mind. Defending freedoms or supporting an unsustainable, bloated lifestyle? If we look deep into the origins and structure of Memorial Day we have much to ponder.
Thanks for this provocative post. I have witnessed more solemn celebrations of Memorial Day in my youth. I always felt they were directed towards celebrating the necessary sacrifice of our soldiers, never felt them to be directed to ending war. The idea of remembering the heroes of war forever goes back to the beginnings of war as expressed in Achilles dilemma of whether to live a long life at home or to fight on and be remembered forever. With this in mind, it seems to me that focusing on the horrors and devastation of war would be a major transformation of what (it seems to me) have always been remembrances of heroic sacrifices that are a part of “necessary” wars.